Tales (and Tails) from St. John’s, Whale’s Gulch, Beachy Cove, Saglek Bay, and various other locations
The sun splits the rocks, and on the shore perches a remarkable girl. With one hand she combs out her luxurious locks, all the while admiring herself in the mirror she holds in her other hand. You make a noise on the stones of the landwash, and startled, she turns to look at you. Then, with a splash of water and a flick of what might be a great fishy tail, the girl is gone beneath the foam.
Have you just seen a mermaid?
Mermaids and mermen are legendary aquatic creatures with the head and upper body of a human and the tail of a fish. “The name mermaid comes from ‘mere,’ meaning lake,” writes English author Jane Hutchins, “and ‘molgd’ meaning Maid, which has been replaced by the latter. However this race of so-called mer-people has always been associated more with the sea than with inland waters.”
While the first merfolk stories may have appeared in ancient Assyria, mermaids now appear in the folklore of many cultures worldwide. Given the province’s long maritime history, mermaid stories have been a small but persistent part of our storytelling traditions for generations. As an example, an article in the Journal of American Folklore in 1895 wrote of a Newfoundland man who, “saw a mermaid sitting on a rock as plainly as he ever saw anything, and was within a couple of boat's lengths of her when she dived to her crystal caves below and was lost to sight.”
The most famous Newfoundland mermaid sighting is the story of Captain Richard Whitbourne, who described meeting a “strange Creature” in his book “Discourse and Discovery of Newfoundland.” Early one July morning in 1610, Whitbourne spotted something fishy swimming in St. John's Harbour. As Whitbourne tells it, the mermaid swam swiftly towards him:
“Now also I will not omit to relate some thing of a strange Creature, which I first saw there in the year 1610, in a morning early, as I was standing by the water side, in the Harbour of Saint John’s,which very swiftly came swimming towards me, looking cheerfully, as it had been a woman: by the face, eyes, nose, mouth, chin, ears, neck, and forehead, it seemed to be so beautiful, and in those parts so well proportioned, having round about upon the head, all blue streaks, resembling hair, down to the Neck, (but certainly it was no hair), yet I beheld it long, and another of my company also yet living, that was not then far from me, saw the same coming so swiftly towards me: at which I stepped back; for it was come within the length of a long Pike.”
The mermaid, with a tail proportioned “like a broad hooked Arrow,” then tried to climb into a boat owned by William Hawkridge, who was not impressed with the creature's attentions:
“...the same Creature did put both his hands upon the side of the Boat, and did strive much to come in to him, and diverse then in the same Boat; whereat they were afraid, and one of them struck it a full blow on the head, whereby it fell off from them: and afterwards it came to two other Boats in the said Harbour, where they lay by the shore: the men in them, for fear fled to land. This (I suppose) was a Marmaid.”
Many years later, the Reverend Moses Harvey, who had a fine appreciation for giant squid and other denizens of the deeps, was not overly impressed by Whitbourne’s interpretation. “There can be no doubt that the honest captain had seen a seal disporting in the waters of the harbour, in the haze of the morning,” opined Harvey in 1885, “and his excited imagination did the rest.”
Mermaids lived on in the imaginations Newfoundlanders for generations. A different Reverend, the Rev. Fred T. Fuge, originally of Whale’s Gulch (now Valley Pond, near Twillingate) wrote in 1955:
“Everybody believed in dreadful sea-serpents and charming mermaids, and many imaginary creatures that never did exist. But, as I see it now, the old seafolk could not altogether be blamed for the strange stories they told. The giant cuttlefish lived in our waters; and this monster, shooting his eight great horns into the air for fifteen or twenty feet, and at the same time concealing his bulk beneath the surface, would forever settle the question of sea-serpents. And the beautiful sea-cow standing erect, half out of the water, and holding her calf between her front flippers while it nursed, was sufficient to impress the ancient mariner with the idea of lovely sea-women, who came out of the water to fondle and nurse their babies.”
Mermaids are mysterious creatures, and their passions and motives are not clearly understood, not even in the legends we tell about them. They might be charming, as Reverend Fuge describes, or worthy of a smack across the head, as Whitbourne describes. Sarah Peverley, a professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool, writes,
“Mermaids have been used across the ages, and across world cultures, to reflect human hopes and fears. In the Middle Ages, for instance, they were used as icons of pride and pleasure, speaking to clerical anxieties about female sexuality and worldly sin, and yet they could also embody Christians’ hope of achieving salvation. The mermaid’s hybrid form makes her a perfect cipher for navigating contrasting ideas and emotions like hope and fear.”
Folklorist John Widdowson notes that mermaids were sometimes used as a threatening figure in Newfoundland folklore, as in an example from Elliston which goes “Don't go down on that ice today, recess time, mind now! If you are not careful a mermaid will get you and carry you out to sea.” It is a belief that was common in mermaid lore. Researcher Allan Jøn argues that like “the half-women Sirens of Classical mythology, mermaids are reported to be highly dangerous to male sailors, sometimes using their feminine wiles and sweet songs to lure ships onto rocks, thereby causing the sailors’ deaths.” Another writer, Barbara Rieti, came across a mermaid story while doing research on Newfoundland fairy traditions. It well illustrates the confusing dual nature of merfolk:
“...there were two sisters who were mermaids. They lived in a place called Beacy [sic] Cove. He says that they would come up by the side of the boat and talk to him. They were very beautiful creatures, half woman and half fish. The older sister was bad and used to cast a spell; this spell was counteracted by the younger sister. The mermaids would come in on the beach at night and comb their hair. These mermaids were daughters of the sea and would bring him strokes of good and bad luck as well as played tricks on him. Once they warned him of a storm and saved his life.”
The book “Folklore of the Sea” is a great resource for nautical tales, and was originally published in 1973 by the Mystic Seaport Museum. The author, Horace Beck, was a former professor of American Literature at Middlebury College, and at the time of writing had been gathering the sea's folklore for decades in Europe, North America, and the West Indies. His life seems the stuff of romantic legend: his first sailing at age three, work on whaling ships, 28 transatlantic crossings under his belt, and an ear torn half-off in a wrestling match.
Luckily for us, his book contains a few references to Newfoundland mermen, including one encountered by a fisherman who was hand-lining by himself in a dory just off the Newfoundland shore. Like the sisters in Rieti’s story, the mermen of Beck’s stories could be either bad or good.
“At noon he stopped fishing and started to eat his lunch, when much to his surprise and annoyance he discovered a merman about to climb into the boat,” writes Beck. “He tried to shoo it away with no success, so he grabbed the fish gaff and bashed it on the fingers, after which it acquired a lively interest in other things.”
A second merman was seen in the same area around the same time. When two men were out hunting, they saw a strange creature in the water and shot at it.
“Whatever it was sank,” describes Beck, “but a short time later a dead merman with a black beard and hair washed ashore nearby.”
Not all of Beck’s Newfoundland merfolk stories end badly. In one, a mermaid helped a Newfoundlander caught in a storm.
“On still another occasion a man was caught in a small boat in a heavy gale. When the situation became most critical a mermaid appeared, climbed onto the gunnel and conned the boat safely through the breakers to shore.”
Another helpful mermaid was recorded by author PJ Wakeham in 1967, who notes that the encounter took place around the middle of the nineteenth century. He writes,
“This story goes on to say that a diver from the United States was working on a wreck at St. Shotts Rock, trying to effect a salvage job, and finding the work almost beyond his capabilities, because of strong tides and undertow, he was on the point of giving up, when a strange creature appeared and taking the ropes he was trying to fasten onto an object, the stranger did the job for him. He was scared at first and wondered where the party had come from, as he was the only diver, as far as he knew who was working on the wreck. But when this friendly helper stayed around and appeared to be anxious to help, he took confidence and continued his salvage operations. In the murky waters the diver said, it was difficult to be certain of anything or anybody, but the creature that assisted him appeared to have the body of a woman from the waist up, but from the centre of her back down the body tapered away to a large fish’s tail. The diver stated emphatically that he could never have effected that salvage job if it hadn't been for the assistance he received from the friendly mermaid.”
Our final mermaid story, from Labrador, also has a happy ending. In this instance, the story was collect by the Torngâsok Cultural Centre as part of its first Inuttitut language storytelling festival, which was held on May 20, 2006. The festival was created with four goals: to provide an opportunity for speakers to share their knowledge of culture and history, to create a forum to collect and record stories, to increase the prestige given to the Inuittut language in local communities, and to bring people together to celebrate that language as a vital part of Labrador culture.
Many of the stories from the festival were brought together in a book, and one of those stories was contributed by elder Bertha Holeiter, who was born in 1951 in Saglek Bay. In her legend, an orphaned boy rescues a mermaid who had become grounded on the rocks. Holeiter says,
“They look like people but they have tails, upper half of them are human and the lower part look like a fish, and they can’t speak. Because they don’t speak, the mermaid spoke to the orphan boy through his mind, ‘I have been grounded and my body is starting to dry up and if I dry up I will die, if you put me to the water I will grant you a wish whatever you want but you have to wear gloves to lift me.’”
The boy dons gloves, and carries her to the water. Safe in the water, she offers to grant his wish, as long as it is not for eternal life. The boy asks for a sealskin cap, and the mermaid gives him one with a fancy broach as his reward. Later, visiting sailors recognize the broach as one lost by the King of England, who in turn gives the boy a hefty sum of money for its return. The boy buys a house for other orphans with the money and thanks the mermaid for his good fortune.
So if you meet a mermaid, you take your chances. You might end up with wealth, fame, and a houseful of orphans, or you might end up with nothing but bad luck and an underwater grave. Keep an eye on the sea, and hope for the best.